Incarceration of Youth as Adults

December 12, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: 12-12-00 — Incarceration of Youth as Adults

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Across America, as reported by Associated Press, prosecutors and legislators are pushing to try more juveniles as adults. Yet simultaneously, according to the wire, law-abiding adolescents are subject to ever-widening restrictions that treat them explicitly as non-adults–curfews, parental-consent requirements, an array of zero-tolerance policies at schools.

Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said public officials often have their own agendas in mind when they talk about young people.

“For some political purposes, it makes sense to demonize them,” she said. “The kids’ own well-being is completely ignored. They’re so easily overlooked because they don’t vote.”

Though 18 is the age most commonly used to define adulthood in America, there is no single, clear-cut “age of majority.” Instead, a welter of federal, state and local laws set widely varying thresholds for young people’s rights and responsibilities.

At 18, they can vote, sign contracts, fight in Army combat units, file lawsuits, decide for themselves about medical treatment. But generally they are still to young to purchase liquor or rent a car.

Girls under 18 can put a baby up for adoption without parental consent, but most states require parents’ involvement before a minor can have an abortion. The legal age of consent for sex ranges from 14 to 18, depending upon the state, and whether the sexual partner is a peer or adult.

Traditionally, lawbreakers under 18 were dealt with by juvenile courts. Their names were kept private; sentences were tailored to maximize the chance for rehabilitation.

Over the past decade, however, nearly every state has passed laws making it easier for minors to be tried in adult courts. The wire also reported that hundreds of communities nationwide have begun imposing curfews barring minors from being on the streets late at night without parental permission. In 1998, according to federal figures, there were 187,000 arrests of juveniles for curfew violations and loitering.

The ACLU has challenged many curfew laws, and last year won a case in New Jersey. But state supreme courts in Connecticut and West Virginia recently upheld local curfews.

Lenora Lapidus, the ACLU legal director in New Jersey, contended that teen curfews are unconstitutional and ineffective. Most juvenile crime occurs in late afternoon and early evening, not late at night, she said.

“All these curfews do is prevent young people from going places, from being free citizens in our society,” she said.

Rita Sklar, who heads the ACLU chapter in Arkansas, said students are subjected to random drug testing, searches of backpacks, even checks by sniffer dogs.

“It’s part of the hysteria of the drug war,” she said. “We’re so convinced it’s akin to a nuclear holocaust that we’re willing to do anything. There are very few people who even question it.”

Source: The Associated Press, December 7, 2000

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